Stephen Hawking used a cheek muscle to select words on his computer. Parisian Jean-Dominque Bauby, paralysed after a stroke, wrote a book by blinking his left eyelid.
Dmitry Selitskiy and the team at Thought-Wired have taken blink/computer technology a step further with a universal brain-computer interface (BCI). In simpler terms, he’s talking about a wearable eye blink switch for people with severe physical difficulties. Nous™ Blink recognises intentional blinks, allowing the user to retain their normal blink process.
Selitskiy is the co-founder and CEO of Thought-Wired, where any user can interact with any electronic device with their mind. Sounds a bit too fantastical? Not at all.
Nous Blink works with a brain-sensing headband and a computer or mobile device. The flexible headband looks like a tennis player’s sweatband. It sits just above the eyebrows and detects eye movement. Software on a tablet, computer, or custom device such as the one used by Stephen Hawking completes the connection using letters, words, and symbols. It’s even capable of smart prediction.
Nous Blink specifically works by isolating the signals created by the eye movement during a blink.
Selitskiy has been working on this for 10 years. “I was doing postgrad study on business information systems at the University of Auckland Business School where I saw videos of brain-computer interfaces, translating brain signals into instructions for the computer. A young cousin of mine became paralysed and I immediately saw the potential – the brain takes over from the body.”
He and his father Konstantin were both studying at the University of Auckland at the same time. “We could see there was something there, but we didn’t understand the science and technology. And then we found two people who did – a biomedical engineering specialist and a health psychologist. We had our expertise.”
Selitskiy admits to making many missteps along the way, saying that being naïve helped.
“First, we tried to use only brainwaves as a method of control. We had some success with our initial approach but struggled to replicate across larger population of users. With the next attempt, we changed our approach to using changes in focused attention and this proved workable, but the user training required was too much.”
Eye blink proved to be the most effective tool.
“The eye blink detection using the same sensor we’d been using as an "add-on" to the attention approach caught the attention of specialists in the disability sector, so we focused on turning this into a product - creating Nous Blink which only uses the eye-movement signal to detect blinks.
“Nous Blink is the only blink-based product on the market that doesn’t use optical technology. Other companies are using camera or infrared technology, but they’re cumbersome, they don’t perform as well and they’re not user-friendly,” he says.
“It’s ideal for those with conditions such as cerebral palsy, motor neurone disease or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. They can use Nous Blink to interact, learn, write and send emails, play music or watch a movie.
“It’s an interface. I use a keyboard and mouse, they blink. The young pick it up very quickly, but it will accommodate people of any age. We’re looking at much larger goals around enabling people to interact with electronic devices in a non-physical way.”
Thought-Wired now has around 70 systems in use, mostly in the UK and US, with some in New Zealand, South Africa, and Italy.
Dmitry is one of the University of Auckland’s 40 Under 40 alumni